The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘new media

PBS vaccinates public with information

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PBS always find itself in the middle of controversies. Not of their own doing of course, but thanks to their flagship documentary program, Frontline, they often explore contemporary issues that aren’t ethically compromised since they’re not run by a for-profit conglomerate compared to most networks.

A few weeks ago, the network that coined “Viewers Like You” broadcast a Frontline episode titled “The Vaccine War.” Autism followers are already aware of the emotionally charged debate that started when Dr. Andrew Wakefield published his now discredited study that proposed a link between MMR vaccines and autism. But even autistics must share. While the autism debate gets about half of the allotted time for the show, PBS also examined the broader issue of alternative medicine. The core controversy Frontline discovered surrounding the vaccine debate mirror other forms of contemporary politics: A parent’s right to decide what’s best for his or her child versus doing what’s best for the community. Medical experts featured on the show explained that an irony may have sparked the debate: Vaccines were so effective at ridding the country of serious diseases (pertussis, chicken pox, polio) that younger parents and adults haven’t seen or heard about these diseases for years (If anyone’s doubting chicken pox, I still have scars from my infection as a kid). Much like the core issue of autism, when people don’t get firsthand exposure or information, the atmosphere is ripe for doubt or skepticism about the existence of such diseases. The result? A potential for a return of diseases once believed to be eradicated from the United States, such as a measles outbreak in San Diego that was quelled before it swelled.

When Frontline examined autism’s role in the vaccine controversy, they reported information that I already knew either through articles or previous blog posts here. For the sake of the community, they had to. The documentary did provide more detailed reports on the major studies that refuted a vaccine-autism link and looked into why the anti-vaccine movement is gaining steam. The conclusion? New media, which includes the very site I’m using to analyze the program, has created a vast amount of hype and misinformation that counters the dry, factual presentation of professional sites all too well. Personal anecdotes presented at rallies are often more emotionally charged, and are more likely to connect with the public than facts are. Jenny McCarthy is featured in this program, mixed with clips of a speech she gave at a rally protesting the high amount of vaccines given to children at a young age. The problem is compounded when you factor general polls that continue to highlight the public’s lack of trust with government and the increasing fragmentation of media that allows people to align themselves with outlets that match their own beliefs.

You know an issue is serious when the controversy is given the Frontline treatment. Although PBS doesn’t show up on the Nielsen ratings with the other networks, Frontline remains a solid barometer of what is affecting us in the present. Ironically, the new media that fragments our population also gives PBS a way to include extended interviews and reports on the topics discussed during an episode. The show may not be influential enough to completely shift current debates about autism regarding vaccines, but it presents us with an explanation of why the current environment exists. Sometimes understanding why is all that’s needed to move forward.

This marks the first time that Frontline has explored any facet of autism, and “The Vaccine War” could easily be a springboard that takes a closer look at the disability should PBS and WGBH decide to pursue it. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the primary segments of the audience who should watch this program actually will. PBS doesn’t take sides, but anti-vaccine groups may believe the documentary throws a few punches at their opinions while touting the importance of stopping preventable diseases. The pro-vaccine side also stands to benefit since web pages aren’t enough anymore to provide information. Facts are nice, but if they’re not presented in an engaging form, web surfers will find another place to navigate. Frontline usually mixes factual and personal stories well, and the vaccine episode may provide a base for future researchers, reporters and documentary makers to find the next phase of autism and other issues where immunizations are involved.

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iPod + iLessons

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Courtesy David Joles, Star Tribune

Courtesy David Joles, Star Tribune

OK, so Apple hasn’t developed an educational technology with that name, but that didn’t stop Fraser Child & Family Center in Minneapolis from experimenting with iPods.

Located near the U of M campus, the staff didn’t go on a music binge. They purchased iPods for people who are part of the Asperger’s treatment program. Asperger’s Syndrome is on the autism spectrum, which means these kids often have the same difficulties as people who are more severely affected. The difference between classic autism and Asperger’s is intellectual abilities. Classic autistics often lag behind their neurotypical peers in terms of speech and communication development. Asperger’s kids equal and sometimes surpass their peers, but retain difficulties in social awareness, making integration sometimes more challenging.

Fraser created video lessons to help rectify that problem. Participants can download them into their iPods and watch them as much as they want at any time. The idea surfaced when the Fraser staff noticed Asperger’s students already used iPods as a calming device from other distractions.

One advantage highlighted in the article is the program’s inconspicuous nature. The rest of us likely won’t guess that a teen or anyone else on the spectrum will pull out their iPod to watch a video on the intricacies of interaction.

Ironically, I’ve never owned an iPod because its use as a calming force almost works too well. iPods are a prime target for thieves because listeners won’t hear anything suspicious, especially if an owner wears its distinctive ear buds. But that doesn’t mean this idea should be abandoned. Fraser’s iPod project is just one example of how new media can influence society as a whole in ways we may not consider on a daily basis.

Also ironic is that I did a story on Fraser, although it was more a profile piece, and the people I talked to wouldn’t let me near anyone who was enrolled in their services. Perhaps my approach or my medium (this was for my TV news reporting class at the U of M) affected their thoughts.  There is HEPA, designed to protect the privacy of people’s medical records. In other words, there’s a rulebook. However, like anything else that involves media, there’s the giant grey area of how those rules are interpreted. Some are strict, some are loose, and sometimes two people will carry vastly different definitions after reading the same book. I doubt I would have come across this specific story, but when I chose to pursue a story on Fraser last fall, my goal was to produce something similar to what Maura Lerner did for the Star Tribune. Lerner’s article shows what can happen when you give people an opportunity to do a story their way.

At least Fraser is willing to open up.

Written by TheSportsBrain

July 26, 2009 at 6:56 pm